NFL Free Agency: Santonio Holmes and 10 Underrated Signings
Every move of the 2011 NFL free agent signing period has been well-documented by the media, but with everything happening so quickly, it’s no wonder a few guys slipped through the cracks.
Specifically, there are 11 underrated players whose free agent movements will shift the balance of power in both conferences.
They’ve flown under the radar so far, but don’t be surprised if a few of them end up boarding a flight to Indianapolis in February.
Santonio Holmes, New York Jets WR
Who knows whether the off-field problems that got him shipped out of Pittsburgh still exist, but the fact that New York was able to steal Holmes for a fifth-round pick seems to have depressed his market value.
Holmes’ re-signing with the Jets hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as it deserves, nor has Holmes gotten enough credit for being a top 10 NFL receiver.
As good as the Jets defense can be, there’s no way that they’ll pay off on Rex Ryan’s Super Bowl guarantee without an improved offense; and as much (undeserved) hype as Mark Sanchez has received over the past two years, he can’t drive the Jets offense on his own.
Shonn Greene and Dustin Keller remain as offensive weapons, but the game-breaking talents (inconsistent though they may be) of Brad Smith and Braylon Edwards are gone. As the only dynamic player remaining on the Jets roster, it’ll take an All-Pro effort from Holmes to lead them to their goal.
Aubrayo Franklin, New Orleans Saints DT
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The average NFL fan may not recognize the name “Aubrayo Franklin,” but he may have been the best playeravailable during the 2011 free agency period. Franklin was an elite space-occupier for the 49ers.
When he wasn’t stuffing the run on his own, he was occupying blockers to free up LB Patrick Willis.
As a member of the Saints, Franklin will provide Jonathan Vilma the same luxury.
After seeing what defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has done with a solid, if unspectacular, group of players, the rest of the NFC South must be shaking in their boots at the prospect of facing an even better-equipped Saints defense.
With Franklin securing the front line, Williams will have more flexibility to unleash the devastating blitz packages that fueled the Saints’ Super Bowl run in 2009.
Johnathan Joseph, Houston Texans CB
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Johnathan Joseph was the Houston Texans’ backup plan when they whiffed on Nnamdi Asomugha, but there’s no shame in being a second option behind the best corner in foootball.
Joseph has spent his prime buried on a bad team in Cincinnati, but his skills have always been sharp. He will immediately be a huge upgrade for one of the worst secondaries in the NFL in 2011.
If their first preseason game is any indication, Wade Phillips will turn around the Texans defense this season. With Connor Barwin and Mario Williams leading a fearsome pass-rush, Joseph will have plenty of opportunities to show off his skils.
Adding Joseph to the mix of an already improved defense should be the final piece to complete the Texans' playoff picture.
Robert Gallery, Seattle Seahawks G
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The world has largely forgotten about the former No. 2 overall pick of the Oakland Raiders. He was hyped as a can’t-miss prospect coming out of Iowa, but bombed initially as a left tackle.
Since then, under cover of media darkness, Gallery has moved inside and matured into a bulldozing guard.
It’s no secret that Darren McFadden and Michael Bush owe much of their recent success to Gallery. With Gallery leading now the way, Marshawn Lynch could ride his 2010 beastification of the Saints to a big year in 2011.
In the perpetually wide open NFC West, Gallery could make a huge difference for the Seahawks. Sure, they still don’t have a proven starting quarterback, but neither do two-thirds of their divisional competition.
I won’t make the mistake of trying to predict the winner of the mess out West, but Gallery will give the Seahawks a big leg up.
Steve Smith, Philadelphia Eagles WR
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Steve Smith’s signing received little fanfare because it came so late in the free agent signing period, but he could be just as much of a difference-maker for the Eagles as any player they’ve acquired this offseason.
Though the latest news is positive regarding Jeremy Maclin’s mystery illness, the fact remains that Philadephia’s No. 2 wideout has yet to strap on his shoulder pads in 2011. DeSean Jackson has finally reported to camp, but his 175-pound frame is bound to suffer some bumps and bruises throughout the season.
While Smith doesn’t bring the flash of the former Carolina Panther who goes by the same name, he brings stability and consistency to an offense already filled with game-breakers. Smith is one of the best in the NFL at converting on third downs, something that Michael Vick struggled to do last season.
On the flip side, the impact of losing Smith can’t be understated for the Giants. With Kevin Boss already heading to Oakland, Eli Manning has lost both of his security blankets.
For a team already stacked with talent, Steve Smith provides valuable insurance at an important position—while weakening one of Philly’s top divisional rivals at the same time.
Mike Sims-Walker, St. Louis Rams WR
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Perhaps the most impressive thing about Sam Bradford’s Rookie of the Year performance in 2010 is that he did it with such little help. He’s the anti-Mark Sanchez—a young quarterback who’s excelled without the benefit of talent at the offensive skill positions.
Conventional wisdom would dictate that once Bradford gets some real receivers, he’ll break out in a big way.
I’m not sure that Mike Sims-Walker is the guy to really put Bradford over the top, but his presence equips Bradford with a big, athletic target to complement the speedy (and finally healthy) Donnie Avery. Sims-Walker can be inconsistent, but he's shown plenty of talent over the last two seasons in Jacksonville.
Much like Seattle’s addition of Gallery, Sims-Walker isn’t a huge signing, but could be enough to tip the balance of power in the NFC West.
Ryan Harris, Philadelphia Eagles RT
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Offensive linemen tend to show up on these kind of lists due to the nature of their position, but in Ryan Harris’ case, he’s underrated even among lineman.
Part of the reason that the Eagles’ acquisition of Harris has flown under the radar is his injury status; but assuming that the former Bronco can return to full health, he will be a huge factor for Philadelphia in 2011.
Though left tackle has become the glamour position amongst the offensive line, Harris’ right tackle spot will actually be more crucial for the Eagles as it protects the blind side of southpaw Michael Vick.
No matter how many other pieces the Eagles acquire, job No. 1 will always be keeping Michael Vick healthy, and the signing of Ryan Harris contributes more directly to that goal than any other move Philly has made.
Eric Wright, Detroit Lions CB
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It may be too strong to call Eric Wright an underacheiver, but his production has never seemed to match up with his athletic ability. In a mediocre defense, he was never able to stand out as a star.
As a Cleveland Brown, Wright snagged nine interceptions in four years, but was also routinely dusted by AFC receivers.
As a Detroit Lion, Wright won’t be counted on to stand out. Aided by what should be a ferocious pass rush, Wright will have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate his ball skills as opposing quarterbacks hurry the ball downfield.
Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham has raved about Wright’s athleticism throughout training camp and will give him every chance to prove himself.
With the pressure off and opportunities at his feet, this might just be the year that Wright finally plays up to his potential.
Jerome Harrison, Detroit Lions RB
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At this point in his career, Jerome Harrison must be wondering what more he has to do to prove himself.
He shined in short-term duty with Cleveland, but was replaced by Peyton Hillis who went on to fantasy superstardom and the cover of Madden NFL 12. He was brought in to back up LeSean McCoy and delivered every time he was called upon; but he was replaced by Wildcat wonder Ronnie Brown this offseason.
Then, something finally broke in Harrison’s favor—unfortunately, it had to be Mikel Leshoure’s achilles tendon. The Lions scrambled to sign a back to pair with Jahvid Best and may have struck gold with Harrison.
It’s well known that most great backs seem to get better as the game wears on, and Harrison has shown the ability to excel in both short stints and long stretches. So whether his role is as a backup to a healthy Best, or a replacement for an injured Best, he will definitely deliver for the Lions in 2011-12.
Jared Gaiter, Kansas City Chiefs RT
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Another unglamorous offensive lineman, Jared Gaither’s move from Baltimore to Kansas City will have a greater two-way impact than any other on this list. Putting him in front of Jamaal Charles rather than Ray Rice could shift the balance of power in two AFC divisions.
Gaither is still a work-in-progress in terms of pass protection, but he is a devastating run blocker at right tackle. Charles’ Barry Sanders-like agility tends to minimize the impact of his line to some degree, but Rice will miss Gaither dearly.
Weakening the Ravens’ ability to run effectively could be a crippling blow in their annual battle with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
On the other side, though Gaither’s addition doesn’t elevate the Chiefs to the same talent level of San Diego, but it moves them within striking range to capitalize on the Chargers’ trademark inconsistency.
Barry Cofield, Washington Redskins DT
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The Redskins don’t figure to be a factor in the NFC East (sorry, Rex), but Barry Cofield most certainly will be.
The Giants defensive line is deserved heralded as one of the best in the game, but it’s only the defensive ends who seem to get credit.
Certainly, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka are all excellent players, but without space-cloggers like Cofield lining up alongside them, those ends wouldn’t be able to post the numbers that have earned them so much praise.
Cofield possesses an excellent combination of girth and quickness which allows him to alternate between his dual roles as a penetrator and space-eater.
He’ll certainly help the Redskins as they try to stay competitive, but his loss will be felt much more by Washington’s rivals to the north.